Thursday, May 29, 2014

Lee Mead: One Year On

Rejoice! Today we celebrate the one year anniversary of  this interview with actor Lee Mead - quite possibly the funniest thing I have ever read. I feel about this interview the way I used to feel about Alice Munro ten years ago: why don't more people know about this? Something this wonderful and brilliant can't be allowed to stay so little known - it should be shared; its brilliance should be shouted from the rooftops; we should be talking about this every day. I don't know how I will celebrate future anniversaries of the publication of this interview with Lee Mead. Perhaps there could be a staging of the events described in his answer to the final question (for this is the pot of gold at the end of the interview rainbow). Perhaps we could all tweet catchphrases from it. Maybe I could go to schools and give lessons about it to some eager children, who will always remember the interview thenceforth and talk about it glowingly to their own children and grandchildren in years to come. The possibilities are endless.

Do please read the interview yourself. What counts, in your first reading of it, is to drink in its all-conquering, almost zen inanity. I particularly savour this bit, for instance:

So I auditioned for Triple 8, didn’t get it, went back on the ferry and a few weeks later, there was a picture of them on the back of a cornflakes packet. I thought: ‘If I’d done better in that audition things could be a bit different to how they are now.’

Several things contribute to making this so delicious. First there's his majestic use of the bathetic, as evidenced in his three-part deconstruction of failure ("Triple 8"/"didn't get it"/"ferry"). There is also his pleasingly vague narrative style: "the ferry"; "a few weeks later"; "a cornflakes packet". (A lesser storyteller might be tempted to tell you which ferry company he was working for, to tweak that timeline, to say Frosties.) Here, too, is a gratifying ambiguity: is the gist of this anecdote that he is pleased he didn't make it into Triple 8 because he wouldn't want to be shilling cornflakes, or does he in fact aspire to the sort of success that Triple 8's cornflakes packet photograph bespeaks? It's hard to tell, precisely because of Lee Mead's appealingly dingy anecdotal style. Finally, the icing on the cake is his qualifier: "a bit different". It may be that you had to be there, and that in person he put a sarcastic emphasis on 'a bit', implying that he bitterly wished he were in Triple 8, whom he considered to be lightyears ahead of him - but in my reading of it, he is merely stating a fact in his pleasantly bland way, namely that things would only be slightly dissimilar if he were a member of popular boyband Triple 8.

Developing an ear for these almost effortlessly banal replies, delivered in a touchingly winsome and artless manner by Lee Mead, is crucial because you need to be prepared for the thrillingly thick and pointless anecdote he unfurls in answer to the final question. Because you have worked through the whole of the interview with mounting amusement, with a giggly exhilaration that builds with each thudding observation about showbiz, musicals, and what it's like to work with Mat from Busted, you arrive at the last question in a state of huge excitement. And there it is - the final question. 

Have you ever had a supernatural experience?

You may want to take a little pause at this point. It's a great question, and you already know from everything I have told you, and from Lee Mead's careful answers to such questions as Are you surprised articles have been written about your childcare arrangements? and What were the highs and lows of singing on a ferry? that Lee Mead isn't going to mess this up. Take a deep breath. Enjoy the moment. OK, we're going in. Says Lee:

My family stayed in a big manor house hotel for my parents’ wedding anniversary a couple of years ago. We were outside my mum’s room and I saw this white light at the end of the corridor. I said: ‘Is that you, Nan?’ because she’d passed away not long before. My mum couldn’t get into her room with her card, it stayed red, but every time I used the same card, it went green. It went on for ten minutes. It was bizarre. Eventually she got in. It might have been my nan having a laugh but who knows?

And there you have it. I count this paragraph as one of the very funniest things, if not the funniest, that it has ever been my pleasure to read. Read it again! I return to it every now and then and it never fails to bring forth a guffaw. It starts low in my body and rises gradually throughout me, filling my chest and then my head with a kind of airy hilarity, an addictive lightness, which finally emerges in the form of a hooted laugh, a sort of incredulous, slightly breathless, almost entirely helpless chortle.

There are many wonderful things about Lee Mead's reply, and I must be careful not to spoil the exhilarating delight that his answer procures by analysing it to death. A few things do stand out however. First of all, my heart is flooded with compassion when I consider that this event happened "a couple of years ago" and that it has remained with Lee Mead for all this time, that he has mulled this over and considered, more than once, whether a faulty lock in a countryside hotel might in actual fact be the post-physical incarnation of the spirit of his grandmother. This makes me feel full of fondness towards Lee Mead.

Another thing that leaps out at me is, again, the gnawing vagueness of the story - the elements that he has cleverly omitted in order to leave you wanting more. I hunger to know why, once his mother had been unable to enter her hotel room using her card, and Lee Mead had helped her enter her hotel room, they carried on trying the lock out between the two of them - she failing to open the door and he succeeding - instead of just going into the hotel room as any normal person would do. That they carried on experimenting with the door for a further ten minutes and proceeded to establish through a presumably forensic elimination process that the fault resided not in the door or the card itself but that the problem was to do with a physical or psychological difference in the person attempting to open it, tells me volumes about the relationship Lee Mead has with his mother. Perhaps they already had an inkling that the phantasm of his grandmother was responsible for the issue, because of that mysterious apparition in the corridor (note how Lee Mead has already set the scene!), which was then seemingly corroborated in the very first moment that Lee Mead's mother failed to open her door, and therefore had to carry on experimenting with the lock for ten minutes in order to verify this hunch.

My favourite bit of the story, and probably yours, is of course Lee Mead's helpless cri de coeur, "Is that you, Nan?" Again, note his mastery of the bathetic, in his appending clause "because she'd passed away not long before", which may be here in order to puncture any too operatic quality the story might otherwise have. The dubiousness of the causality means that the reader is immediately inside Lee Mead's mind: we are with him all the way as he takes us into the second episode that leads him to believe he may have had a supernatural experience. You need to imagine, properly, being in the sort of state of mind that would induce you, upon seeing a light at the end of an empty corridor, to voice out loud your suspicion that this is your grandmother. I struggle to imagine saying "Is that you, Nan?" in an empty corridor. What if one of the people in their hotel rooms were to overhear me and come out into the corridor to see me talking to to a wall? I couldn't bear the shame. But I'm not Lee Mead. A simple man perhaps, his affectless mind means that he isn't afraid to ask the question, nor to recount the story in a widely read newspaper.

But he scuppers us in the final part of his answer, by becoming the voice of reason itself. Again, his winning modesty is at play as he says "but who knows?" Indeed.  Lee Mead knows that his story is not proof that he has had a supernatural experience, merely a very solid argument that can never be entirely refuted. He never says, "Yes, I have had a supernatural existence": it is this doubt, draped over his story like a fine gauze, that lends the episode its charm.

So today we celebrate Lee Mead. In part we celebrate him for the wonderful, glorious dumbness of his story about the ghost of his grandmother fucking about with a hotel card-lock, but mostly we celebrate him for his gentle, sweet nature and for the true beauty of a mind that would dare to tell such a tale.